Small Gods

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #13
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: February 1994
Printing: March 2008
ISBN: 0-06-109217-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 357

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Small Gods is the thirteenth Discworld novel, but it features new characters and is unrelated to any of the previous books. Some reading order guides show it as following Pyramids in an "ancient civilizations" track, but its only relationship with that book is some minor thematic similarities. You could start here with Discworld if you wanted to.

Brutha is a novice in the hierarchy of the church of the Great God Om, and his elders are convinced he'll probably die a novice. He's just not particularly bright, you see. But he is very obedient, and he doesn't mind doing hard work, and there's nothing exactly wrong with him, except that he looks at people with startling intensity when they're talking to him. Almost as if he's listening.

All that seems about to change, however, when the Great God Om himself approaches Brutha and starts talking to him. Not that Brutha is at all convinced at first that this is happening, particularly given that Om appears in the form of a small, battered, one-eyed tortoise who was dropped into the church garden by an eagle attempting to break his shell.

Small Gods is, as you might have guessed, a parody of religion, at least large, organized religion with fixed hierarchies, organizations called the Quisition that like to torture people, and terrifyingly devout deacons who are certain of themselves in ways that no human ever should be. It's also an interesting bit of Discworld metaphysics: gods gain power from worship (a very old idea in fantasy), and when they don't get enough worship, they end up much diminished and even adrift in the desert. Or trapped in the form of a small tortoise. One might wonder how Om ended up in his present condition given the vast and extremely authoritarian church devoted to his worship, but that's the heart of Pratchett's rather pointed parody: large religious organizations end up being about themselves, rather than about the god they supposedly worship, to such an extent that they don't provide any worship at all.

Brutha is not thinking of things like this. Once he's finally convinced that Om is who he claims to be, he provides worship and belief of a very practical but wholehearted and unshakable sort, just as he does everything else in life. That makes him the eighth prophet of Om as prophecy foretold, but it's far from clear how that will be of any practical use. Or how Om will come back into power. And meanwhile, Brutha has come to the attention of Vorbis, the head of the Exquisitors, who does not know about the tortoise (and wouldn't believe if he did), but who has a use for Brutha's other talent: his eidetic memory.

In typical Pratchett fashion, the story expands to include a variety of other memorable characters from the neighboring city of Ephebe, a country full of gods and philosophers. Vorbis's aims here are unclear at the start of the book, but Vorbis being who he is, they can't be good. Brutha is drawn along in his wake. Meanwhile, Om is constantly watching for an opportunity to regain his lost power and worshipful following, and also to avoid being eaten.

Despite the humorous components, Small Gods is rather serious about religion and about its villain. It's also a touch repetitive; Om's lack of power and constant fretting about it, Brutha's earnest but naive loyalty, and Vorbis's malevolent determination are repeatedly stressed and get a little old. Some bits in Ephebe are quite fun, but the action is a bit disjointed, partly because the protagonist is rarely the motive force in the plot. There are also some extended scenes of trudging through the desert that I thought dragged a bit. But Pratchett hits some powerful notes in his critique of religion, and there are a few bits with Death at the end of the book that I thought were among the better pieces of Discworld philosophy. And when Brutha gets a chance to use his one talent of memory, I greatly enjoyed the resulting scenes. He hits just the right combination of modesty, capability, and earnestness.

I know a lot of Pratchett readers really like Small Gods. I'm not one of those; I thought it was about average for the Discworld series (at least among the books I've read so far). But average for Discworld is still pretty good, and its new setting makes it a plausible place to start (or to take a break from the other Discworld plot threads).

Followed, in publication order, by Lords and Ladies. I don't believe it has a direct plot sequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-04-27

Last modified and spun 2017-04-28